Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—

The Crown— review and commentary

Which is which?

Netflix has some amazing original content, and one of its best efforts thus far has been The Crown, a somewhat fictional series based on the reign of Elizabeth II. Written and produced by Peter Morgan, this series begins while Elizabeth is still a youngster, but when her father takes over for his brother (who abdicated the throne so he could be with his “commoner/divorcé” lover) Elizabeth becomes the heir to the throne. From that time period, her father grooms her to serve the people and the royal family, a/k/a The Crown. Seasons 1 and 2 feature Claire Foy as Elizabeth, and former “Dr. Who” Matt Smith is Prince Philip. Perhaps the best performance in this award winning season goes to John Lithgow as an aging Winston Churchill, who guides and yet admires the young monarch as she works to live up to the responsibility thrust upon her when her father dies at a fairly young age.

The Crown does a fantastic job of intertwining history and some suppostion, thus educating a new generation about some of the most important (or at least entertaining) events in United Kingdom in the past few decades. Each season spans several years, so the cast changes in order to better show the aging of the characters. For instance, while Claire Foy is Elizabeth in the first two seasons, the queen is portrayed by Olivia Coleman in seasons three and four. The latter dropped onto Netflix November 15, and Coleman does a really good job as the middle aged sovereign, as does Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. Another season four cast addition is Emma Corrin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to young Princess Diana. The series has been mostly been praised, but season four is a bit more controversial. Since this season portrays the “fairy tale romance” between Prince Charles and Diana, then quickly lays out the conflicted marital mess that ensued, because apparently Charles didn’t love Diana at all, but maintained his relationship with his former lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles, during most of the marriage, some viewers (and those close to the real people) have been a bit riled.

Of course, Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated then divorced, but younger fans apparently didn’t realize the “why” in the divorce until The Crown brought this back in a big way on the small screen. Recently, the social media accounts of Prince Charles and (now wife) Camilla have been inundated with snarky posts. Furthermore, officials in the U.K. have asked producers of The Crown to assure the public that the show is fictional.

History only works after the fact. Peter Morgan (series creator and chief writer) benefits from the many publications about the British royals, and is able to pick and choose what he presents to the audience in The Crown. Mostly the characterizations and storylines seem spot on, but those close to the royal family point to discrepancies, and no doubt some “fiction” does come in. Regardless of these points, The Crown has extraordinarily high production values. The cast is first rate, the scripts mostly entertaining; and the sets, costumes, and locations all contribute to the feeling of being an eyewitness to history. If you haven’t seen it yet, this series is one of the very best shows on Netflix.

Last Stand series by William Weber—review and commentary

Last Stand: The Complete Box Set

From time to time, I’m offered a “box set” of eBooks, which strikes me as funny as there is obviously no box, just a longer than normal eBook. While these often seem to be great values, I seldom read an entire series. Last Stand is different, because I did indeed read all four books, and while I enjoyed them, I liked each one a little less, but that’s just me and what I Prefer to read, rather than any flaws in the books themselves.

Book one, Surviving America’s Collapse, was so suspenseful that I read it in less than 24 hours. Apparently survivalist/prepper books are a sub-genre, but this is my first such book. Viewed simply as fiction, readers might be annoyed, as the narrative often becomes pedantic, teaching survivalist techniques to the reader, but I rather enjoyed those segments. In short, the story begins with the hero, former Army officer John Mack, being the only guy in his neighborhood who understands that the vehicles, phones, and other conveniences aren’t working because some entity set off an “EMP” device. Mack rescues his wife, then his children, thinking they will soon retreat to his survivalist hideaway cabin, but his wife convinces him to remain in their neighborhood, to assist their friends. This proves to be increasingly difficult, as resources dwindle and nefarious elements attempt to takeover their community.

Book two, Patriots, begins in the second setting, the Mack family hideaway. The canvas of conflict widens a bit in this book, as Mack realizes the scope of the attack upon America, and feels the need to take up arms not just to defend his family, but his country. Book three, Warlords, is a bit darker in tone, as the forces behind the attack upon America begin divvying up the country. Book four, Turning the Tide, is on a grander scale, as Mack is one cog in the military effort to fight back against the foreign powers that seem to have figured out how to conquer the United States.

Each of these books has a fictional story, but invariably the author uses his story to also instruct the reader. Those who like lots of details about the military and/or weaponry might like these books more than I did, but I did enjoy them. Some of the characterizations are fairly stereotypical, and sometimes the main characters are able to overcome situations which would probably be hopeless without the assistance of the author. So, suspending one’s disbelief a bit is a necessary skill for staying with the series. Still, the suspense is sufficient to keep the reader turning the pages.

Survivalists, military buffs, and those who enjoy suspense will all find something to like in Last Stand. As of this post, the price for the eBook set is three bucks, which is a down payment on a hamburger! I can’t think of anything as entertaining as these books for that price, so take a look. These books are also available in paperback and as audio books, and all have hundreds of ratings on Goodreads, mostly 4-5 stars.

Halt and Catch Fire—a series to catch on Netflix

As we aren’t “cable” subscribers, sometimes we miss a show that was commissioned for a network. Halt and Catch Fire is such a series, as it was originally shown on AMC. Honestly, the title is so weird that I would have never given it a thought, but one of those “Best things to watch on Netflix” lists gave it a good review, so hubby and I decided to give it a go.

Of late, it has been our favorite binge-watch. Usually, I wait until finishing a series before reviewing it, but Halt and Catch Fire ran for four seasons, and we are mostly through season three, so it’s time to let y’all in on this excellent period drama.

First off, the title has something to do with writing computer code, but I don’t remember what it means (and it probably doesn’t matter). I like computers; I’m typing on a MacBook Pro right now! This show is about the computer revolution, and how you view it might depend upon your age. If you are younger, this show will be a bit historical. But, if you are a somewhat chronologically gifted, you probably remember the first computers. As a classroom teacher, I remember begging to put computers into my classroom so we could edit copy for the yearbook. Back in the 80s, editorial changes for typewritten copy were costing us hundeds of dollars per year, so I managed to get a couple of surplus Apple IIe computers. They had green flashing characters and those big floppy drives, but they saved us some dough and were my intro into the modern age of publishing. Then I got a Mac SE that used smaller disks. That little machine was bequeathed to use from an administrator who felt some pity for the plebes in the classroom, and it was so different that I took it home over the summer to learn how to use it. I digress, but the 80s is the era where HACF begins.

The characters who come together in the first episode represent various aspects of the nascent computer business. In season one, the show is set in Texas (the Silicon Plain) but the group moves to Silicon Valley in later seasons. Joe is the super salesman who cut his teeth at IBM and wants to create a better personal computer. Gordon is an engineer who already made a better computer, but since the machine failed, he’s slogging along at Cardiff Electric, a company that produces software for mainframes and tries to compete with IBM. His wife, Donna, is a brilliant computer developer who is relegated to support work at the Texas Instruments learning division, because she and Gordon need to feed their family. The catalyst for change is Cameron, a female college drop out who writes code better than Shakespeare wrote plays. Cameron is recruited by Joe to come to work at Cardiff Electric, where he’s a recent hire. The company manager, John Bosworth (Boz), is just trying to make the owner happy and is baffled by the changes that are coming to the company as these players all work together to build a better computer.

This show is well-written and well-acted by the ensemble cast. As I wrote that summary, it sounds a bit boring. Not! While there are a few technical aspects that are necessary in a show about the informational technology revolution, this is a show about people—their hopes, their ambitions, as well as success and failure of people and businesses. The series is a blast from the past in terms of technology, but seeing how these fictional characters helped create the computers that we tend to take for granted is both entertaining and compelling.

If you didn’t watch Halt and Catch Fire the first time, catch it on Netflix before it goes away!

Semi/Human by Erik Hanberg—review and commentary

A Y/A science fiction yarn

As the pandemic has continued to plague businesses, many of them are accelerating their transition to robots and artificial intelligence, thus replacing or supplementing their all too frail human employees. Semi/Human is set in the near future, and in this novel Silicon Valley has finally written an adaptable code that makes most human employees obsolete. Vehicles drive themselves, dealers in Vegas are all robots, police have been replaced by armed drones, and so forth.

Main character Pen(ney) Davis is more than depressed, because like most other human jobs, her intern job at a Silicon Valley computer firm has been eliminated. However, Pen has come up with a less than practical scheme to steal a ridiculously expensive treasure from her former employer and get rich enough to care a lot less about being unemployed.

As Alexander Pope once observed, “A little bit of learning is a dangerous thing,” and recent intern Pen re-writes the code of a self-driving truck, intending to hijack it for a trip across the country, but ends up making the aforementioned truck autonomous instead. Fortunately for Pen, the truck, Lara B, is both friendly and grateful.

Lest I ruin this tale for readers, let me just say that this yarn is cogent, examining the societal damage which would ensue if gainful employment ceased, as well as the ethics of dealing with a self-aware, nearly omniscient super computer. There’s a dash of economic reality sprinkled in as well, because with no work, there’s no money coming in for the vast majority of the populace, so they end up fighting over whatever is left behind in the technological revolution.

There’s also more than a little suspense, as Pen and Lara B join forces to accomplish the original mission, wherein Pen hopes to acquire both riches and revenge in one fell swoop. Semi/Human is one of those rare books that blends a cautionary theme with an entertaining plot. Most of the characters are well drawn, and there is sufficient description of settings to keep the reader entertained but the plot never bogs down.

As a frequent reader of science fiction, it is rare for me to call a novel memorable, but for me Semi/Human is such a book. Perhaps I simply read it a the right time, or perhaps the book is really that good. If you like youthful, sassy heroines, self-aware computers (and trucks) along with a suspense filled story line, you really should try Semi/Human.

Home Before Dark—television for October or any time you want a mystery

After buying a new iPad, I got a freebie subscription to AppleTV and we’ve watched a couple of good things. However, my husband and I were both surprised by the appeal of “Home Before Dark,” which has a description that sounds a lot like Harriet the Spy blended with a modern gothic mystery. The first episode shows promise, but by the third, we were in “gotta see more” mode. Series television shows often have difficulty maintaining suspense, but this one does a darned good job of it.

Basically, the story follows an investigative reporter in New York, who has lost his job, and moves his family back to his hometown (and home) because his dad has had to move to a facility due to illness. As the family is in some financial distress, they have come to this small town because the house is free. The wife is a former public defender, and the couple has three daughters. The middle daughter has always wanted to be just like her dad, and she likes to carry a notebook and ask a lot of pointed questions. Before long, this daughter has found a cold case that dates back to her dad’s childhood, solved at the time by convicting a scapegoat whom the child comes to believe as innocent, and she emulates her dad by asking lots and lots of questions.

While I don’t want to spoil the story for potential viewers, suffice it to say that dad and mom get drawn into the investigation, while the older and younger daughters suffer the consequences of the backlash which comes from the townspeople, who don’t welcome the revival of interest in the case, which gets hotter with each episode.

Home Before Dark isn’t a show for kids, although older ones might enjoy the story, despite the nine year old point of view character. The script, the acting, and the setting are all top drawer, so ignore the “kiddy show” description, and enjoy a very good mystery leading up to Halloween!

Star Trek Picard—review and commentary

 

Ryan in Trek

Then and now— Seven of Nine


Star Trek
is an integral part of American culture
and a controversial view of the future of humanity. It began with Gene Roddenberry’s concept for a serious science fiction television series, a novel idea in the early 60s, and it has continued to evolve for fifty years. As America has changed, as science fiction has changed, as television has changed, Star Trek has changed, too.

Picard is set two decades after the feature film, Nemesis, and is based upon the series Star Trek The Next Generation, which ran for seven years on television. Later, four of the feature films were based upon the characters from TNG series. Picard has ten episodes in season one, but the second and third seasons are planned for CBS All Access, which is how hubby and I watched the first season.

This made for the web series has very high production values—the sets and effects rival feature films. Sir Patrick Stewart is still an amazing actor, although the pace of the series (slow!) seems to be partially dictated by the age of its principal character. Viewers who prefer space battles and fisticuffs will probably be a bit disappointed. Casual viewers may also find the editing, with its rapid cuts from scene to scene, confusing. Honestly, I don’t like that aspect at all, but this is apparently in line with Picard‘s sister show, Star Trek Discovery.

Spoiler alert—

We both thought the first few episodes were confusing and lacking in characters, apart from Jean Luc Picard himself, with whom we could empathize. The writers made a good decision in embracing the age of the main character. Anything else would insult the viewer, as Patrick Stewart looks and sounds old. For us, as fans of Star Trek Voyager, the show got better when Jeri Ryan pops in, as an older and less “Borg” version of Seven of Nine. Ryan is still riveting to watch, even without the cat suit that made her fodder for lots of magazine pictures in the late 1990s. In the seventeen years since her character graced the small screen, Seven has become much more human—in her speech pattern, in her attire, and in part due to suffering losses associated with years of living in a deteriorating society.

A key word here is suffering. One of the better aspects of Trek in its first few decades was  its optimistic view of the future of humanity. Although Roddenberry sought to put serious science fiction onto television, and therefore into lots of living rooms, his vision was seldom dark. However, much of serious science fiction—in print, in film, in gaming, and even in graphic forms—has embraced the dystopian view of the future of humanity. A utopia is an idealized society in which social and technical advances serve to make all things better for humanity. Yes, I did say it was idealistic! A dystopia is the polar opposite, in which “advances” in society and technology make things worse. For some examples of dystopian literature/film, think of Orwell’s 1984 or the film Blade Runner, based upon the work of Phillip K. Dick.

Alas, Picard‘s greatest weakness isn’t its slow pace or its rather confusing editing. Nor is it the “flashbacks” in which the characters look just as old as they do in the current timeline, no doubt due to the unforgiving nature of high def photography. Nope, the core problem for many fans of Star Trek will undoubtedly be the dark vision of the future embraced by the writers. Picard is a dystopia. Beloved characters from the previous Trek series will suffer, and some will die. New characters suffer and some of them die, too. And, by and large, those deaths may very well be without purpose, meaning, and certainly without honor.

Star Trek Picard has some strengths, including dazzling cinematography, a rich background of material from which the writers can draw inspiration, and an aging but talented main character. Guest stars include characters from TNG and Voyager, and the development of Seven of Nine, the former Borg, works well. Enjoy the series, but temper your expectations. This is post-modern Star Trek.

 

Resources for writers

Book Covers SFOver my almost two decades of writing and (occasionally) publishing, I’ve learned some stuff. Lots of stuff, actually. Some of what I learned (such as a great place to buy a box for a manuscript) is out of date. However, there are some resources that budding writers should utilize that are still quite relevant, so here goes—

While a novel (or a short story or screen play) is still in the drafting stage, consider getting editorial help. Informally, there are many writer’s groups which offer support and critiques. If you live close enough, consider that as a first source of assistance and career development. I was once privileged to judge a short fiction contest held by the Northeast Georgia Writer’s Group, and all of the entries were quite worthy. The group is active, with contests and guest speakers. Many libraries sponsor such groups. There’s a great list of writer’s groups in Georgia at ReadersUnbound.com.

Depending on genre, there just may be a writer’s conference waiting for you. Such conferences usually feature guest speakers, workshops, and opportunities to meet with literary agents, who are the typical conduits between writers and publishers. I was fortunate to attend a few in nearby Athens (at the UGA campus) which was sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, but there are a number of conferences, either general or targeting specific types of writing.

When the work is more or less complete, if there is no conventional publisher in the picture paying for it, an author seeking to self-publish or polish a manuscript for possible submission should really consider a paid editor. The Writer’s Digest magazine folks have an entire “store” devoted to such services. When I was working on my first novel, a publisher recommended that I go through a course with Writer’s Digest, and the experience taught me quite a lot about the value of editorial assistance.

Whether self-publishing a novel or developing a website and/or a social media publicity campaign, hiring a professional graphic artist is really important. For a web only publication, such as Kindle Direct, I might try the do it yourself method, but even then, it is good to use a site such as Canva.com. However, if there is any serious money going into the project, such as self-publishing in print or multiple platforms, then a cover artist is very helpful. Both The Gift Horse and the second edition of Trinity on Tylos have covers designed by an independent artist. There’s a list of cover artists over at The Creative Penn. By the way, I’d steer clear of Fiver. I tried that, and got nothing, not even a refund for my initial payment.

Once a book is in print or available as an eBook, most writers will want to help with marketing. This can be rather daunting for many writers. The publisher of The Gift Horse (Booklocker) has a companion site, Writer’s Weekly, which has some links to paying markets for shorter works, as well as articles about writing and marketing.

There are a lot of companies that offer “services” to authors. Be very careful to choose wisely, or money that should have been spent on editing and cover design will be frittered away on something else. While some of these resources have costs, others are cheap or even free. Regardless of how much money you spend, for a novelist the two most important resources are editing and cover design—in that order.

 

Why do writers need editors?

editing-apps-800x600Before you say, “Duh!” please remember that some people have lots of self-confidence. Others can crawl off into a mental state and ignore the world around them, which can be considered a skill in the writing biz, but conformity is comforting to readers. Other writers seem to think that the rules don’t apply to them, like ee cummings. A few insist on ignoring the red and green squiggles that the word processor uses to offer help in eliminating common mistakes. Writers suffer from any of those problems, or have other idiosyncrasies that make editing necessary. Yes, I considered dealing with editors to be something of a pain, because I am self confident and not afraid to break a few rules.

However, I have learned quite a lot from writing teachers and editors. Friends and family will offer a few tips, but if those friends really like you, brutal honesty is off the table. Sometimes the distance combined with authority that goes along with having an editor is transformative. My first novel was a hot mess when it finally got a full length reading at the micro press that ultimately put it through line editing. My second novel was better, but still needed a lot of work in the editorial phase, beginning at conceptual, then line by line, and finally, proofreading. At that time, WCP did not pay proofreaders, instead relying upon volunteers, which was a bad business decision. My work suffered from that lack, as a few errors made it into the printed work, and sales were less than optimal.

Publishers seldom take on a fiction manuscript that isn’t complete, which leaves out the project development phase. Once the novel is finished, most writers will attempt to put it into the hands of either an agent or a publisher. Problems with style or continuity may crop up at this stage, but if the work is compelling, those can be addressed. What most people consider editing is copy or line editing, which is a line by line examination of grammar, spelling, mechanics, and style. Any “big changes” in the manuscript probably occur at this stage. The back and forth over details can be annoying or even funny, but most problems in the work are solved at this phase. Once, an editor challenged me on a detail where I described a man wearing a glen plaid suit. I thought it descriptive, but she thought it was a weird description that no reader would understand. Ultimately, the description remained, but that is the kind of thing that comes up in line edits.

Before printing comes proofreading, when any style or content changes have been addressed—so what’s left is a last look at spelling, capital letters, and adjustments to make the page layout work. I remember the copy editor at Whiskey Creek Press had to substantially change one sentence to avoid a page with a single word on it, and I was okay with her changes.

A good editor makes printed work better—by questioning, suggesting changes, and insisting on being absolutely correct. Real editing makes the author’s work shine, without the distractions of mistakes or inconsistencies. Nowadays, many people think that word processors have made editors obsolete. Unfortunately, that is simply wrong, and writing is suffering mightily. Errors abound, and the solution is a great editor who reads and corrects. Technology is advancing, but it cannot replace editorial expertise.

Jersey Boys on Netflix

Jersey BoysLike many of you, we use services such as Netflix rather than having a traditional cable subscription. At times, we miss the old TV Guide magazine, which would guide the viewing experience. Instead, with Netflix, there is some algorithm that knows my husband likes shoot ’em up flix, so I am not always happy with the suggestions. However, a couple of days ago, I noticed “Jersey Boys”as an option in our feed. I’m embarrassed to say that hubby actually, “What’s that?” I simply said, “Click on it and you’ll see.”

Anyway, fortunately for me, hubby likes music, especially vintage pop, so he was eager to take a look at the movie version of this musical, which had a great run on Broadway, and is still touring around the country. Jersey Boys tells the story the Four Seasons, featuring the fabulous Frankie Valli. Surprisingly, the film version is directed by Clint Eastwood. The cast is really great, with Christopher Walken in a small but pivotal role, and it also has the original Valli from Broadway, John Lloyd Young as well as Erich Bergen, who has a supporting role in another show we’ve watched on Netflix, Madame Secretary.

There is much to like about this film, which is actually a 2014 release, but I was most impressed with the sound track. And, as is possible when watching a film in the comfort of home, I paused it and did some research, finding that the cast sang, rather than having it dubbed by either the original band or by hired musicians. Many of the hits from the Four Seasons are present, including “Sherry”, “December 63 (Oh What a Night)”, “Walk Like a Man”, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Valli’s solo, “My Eyes Adored You” is also in the film, as are other familiar tunes.

Although not entirely happy, for this film follows the rise and the ultimate fall of The Four Seasons, we enjoyed this film quite a lot. If you are a Netflix subscriber, the movie version of Jersey Boys is a great way to spend an evening. Toe tapping is optional, but recommended!